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Indian Doctor Tagged 'Henry Ford Of Heart Surgery' Drives Down Costs

Since this is going to be a healthcare-themed kind of week, this is an interesting look at an Indian surgeon and entrepreneur who's making heart sur

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Since this is going to be a healthcare-themed kind of week, this is an interesting look at an Indian surgeon and entrepreneur who's making heart surgery affordable for even India's poorest - and whose facilities will be coming to us via a short plane ride. This very well may be the U.S. health care model of the future:

BANGALORE -- Hair tucked into a surgical cap, eyes hidden behind thick-framed magnifying glasses, Devi Shetty leans over the sawed open chest of an 11-year-old boy, using bright blue thread to sew an artificial aorta onto his stopped heart.

As Dr. Shetty pulls the thread tight with scissors, an assistant reads aloud a proposed agreement for him to build a new hospital in the Cayman Islands that would primarily serve Americans in search of lower-cost medical care. The agreement is inked a few days later, pending approval of the Cayman parliament.

Dr. Shetty, who entered the limelight in the early 1990s as Mother Teresa's cardiac surgeon, offers cutting-edge medical care in India at a fraction of what it costs elsewhere in the world. His flagship heart hospital charges $2,000, on average, for open-heart surgery, compared with hospitals in the U.S. that are paid between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the complexity of the surgery.

The approach has transformed health care in India through a simple premise that works in other industries: economies of scale. By driving huge volumes, even of procedures as sophisticated, delicate and dangerous as heart surgery, Dr. Shetty has managed to drive down the cost of health care in his nation of one billion.

His model offers insights for countries worldwide that are struggling with soaring medical costs, including the U.S. as it debates major health-care overhaul.

"Japanese companies reinvented the process of making cars. That's what we're doing in health care," Dr. Shetty says. "What health care needs is process innovation, not product innovation."

At his flagship, 1,000-bed Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, surgeons operate at a capacity virtually unheard of in the U.S., where the average hospital has 160 beds, according to the American Hospital Association.

Narayana's 42 cardiac surgeons performed 3,174 cardiac bypass surgeries in 2008, more than double the 1,367 the Cleveland Clinic, a U.S. leader, did in the same year. His surgeons operated on 2,777 pediatric patients, more than double the 1,026 surgeries performed at Children's Hospital Boston.

Next door to Narayana, Dr. Shetty built a 1,400-bed cancer hospital and a 300-bed eye hospital, which share the same laboratories and blood bank as the heart institute. His family-owned business group, Narayana Hrudayalaya Private Ltd., reports a 7.7% profit after taxes, or slightly above the 6.9% average for a U.S. hospital, according to American Hospital Association data.

The group is fueling its expansion plans through private equity, having raised $90 million last year. The money is funding four more "health cities" under construction around India. Over the next five years, Dr. Shetty's company plans to take the number of total hospital beds to 30,000 from about 3,000, which would make it by far the largest private-hospital group in India.

At that volume, he says, he would be able to cut costs significantly more by bypassing medical equipment sellers and buying directly from suppliers.

Go read the whole thing. (And don't miss the "farmer's insurance" he offers poor farmers.) Obviously, you need to have impeccable quality control when you have that kind of volume - but we already know that the more often a surgeon performs a specific procedure, the better he gets. So maybe these specialized treatment centers will be the wave of the future.

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